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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 104

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:37 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the documents.

I expect that many of the submissions, certainly the substantive ones, would be on the web site of the Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee from the last parliament. I recommend people look through those submissions if they are interested in the detail. I think it appropriate to speak on this matter because it revisits and plays a part in what I still believe was an appalling process and an appalling decision by the Senate before the last election to truncate the inquiry—basically to negate it—despite the large public interest, and to guillotine the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004 through the Senate.

I do not want to revisit the content of that legislation. There were some strong views expressed across the spectrum, including by me and many other Democrats. As I said at the time, I thought it was extremely unwise to pass it. Beyond simply the wisdom or otherwise of passing that legislation, the fact that the decision was made to pass it after having been referred to the committee was very unfortunate. The submissions that have been tabled signal the enormous amount of public interest in the issue. A lot of the public expressed views that disagreed very strongly with mine. But preventing the committee from working through the specifics of the real issues underlying the bill and trying to dig below some of the heat and into the real guts of the matter actually did broader damage than whether or not it was a good bill.

It is good that submissions are still available, that they are presented to the Senate and that people can still access and absorb them. The truncated inquiry prevented the opportunity for public hearings, particularly, and an exchange of views in what is usually the somewhat less heated environment of the Senate committee process. With senators questioning, witnesses tend to cool down the rhetoric and to emphasise things in a more rational way. It often can be beneficial for all of us to test our strongly held views against strongly held counterviews. To negate the opportunity for that to happen just to enable the bill to be guillotined was really very unfortunate. It compounded my broader view of how unfortunate it was that the bill was passed. I suppose my views are coloured by that. Maybe if I thought the bill was fantastic, I would be somewhat less concerned about it.

It is fairly unusual to push a bill through while it is still before a committee. I can think of one other example. Prior to the 2001 election, one of the pieces of migration legislation which were guillotined through the Senate was also before a committee. The legislation was pushed through anyway. That process is pretty uncommon and I hope that it remains very uncommon. For that reason, I felt it was appropriate to specifically draw attention to and elaborate on some of my concerns and to express the very strong wish that the process does not happen again before June or indeed after the end of June when the government will have a majority in this place. Obviously, by virtue of that majority, they will be able to stop things going to committees.

This is an example—even when the government does not have the numbers in this place—of how the Senate allows itself, from time to time, to follow processes that are far from ideal. When we look at our key role as a house of review and at the value of the Senate committee system, which allows the public to express and exchange their views with senators, questioning and testing viewpoints and evidence in a public forum, on the Hansard record and under parliamentary privilege, we see that it is an incredibly valuable process—particularly the public engagement. It is always unfortunate if it is truncated, as it was on this occasion.

I certainly hope that some of the issues and views expressed from all sides of the debate are still taken on board. Those views have just been tabled and I expect that the substantive submissions will still be available on the committee web site.

Question agreed to.